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Eileen Obser | What’s the Sense of All This?


There’s a sign posted on my desk that lists: SIGHT, HEARING, TOUCH, SMELL and TASTE. Years ago, I typed this in Times New Roman, 36 point, bold on white paper, printed it out, and cut it to 3×5 size. It’s remained there among the letters and files, the calendars and journals, and with the many photos, cartoons and scribbled notes that adorn my work area.

When I’m editing, the sign comes forward. I place it right near the computer screen. Are the senses there in what I wrote? Do my characters – and do I – taste and touch and see so that readers will experience my story or essay as I intended? Will they feel as I want them to when they read these words of mine?

In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman writes in her introduction that “The senses don’t make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity; they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern.”

Yes, she sometimes writes like that – she’s a poet, after all — and her sentences can sometimes be challenging. But I love when Ackerman writes, in the first chapter, “The Mute Sense”: “Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel.”

Open the book to any page, to Ackerman’s take on any of the five senses; A Natural History is so rich in language that you can only read it in small bits. Feelings come alive in us, though, the kind of feelings that sir up memories: For me: Hearing: A late night train arriving at the station, two miles across an open field. I was raised in Queens, New York, one block from the train tracks, and my thoughts may go back there. Touch: Any of the soft scarves I wear around my neck in fall and winter, part of my seasonal wardrobe since early adulthood. Sight: The continuous stream of autumn leaves falling outside, just like they have the last thirty-plus years, here in the northwest woods of East Hampton. I keep Ackerman’s book nearby for short excursions into her poetic view of all the senses.

This, from Anatole Broyard’s review in The New York Times of A Natural History of the Senses in July 1990:
“To think our way back into feeling: this is Ms. Ackerman’s mission, and she’s very persuasive. On every other page, there’s a nice apercu: breath is ‘cooked air’; perfume is ‘liquid memory’; when astronauts are weightless in their spaceship, they lose their sense of smell; the sweat of schizophrenics smells different from ours; a kiss is like singing into someone’s mouth; in a Stradivarius violin, the wood ‘remembers’ its past performances.”

Seeing and reading this review brings me right back to 1969, when I took one of my first writing workshop classes at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. Broyard, writer, literary critic and editor for The New York Times, was my teacher, and I can hear his voice, full of advice and attitude, as if it was last week instead of decades ago.

And I hear the voices of other teachers and colleagues when my mind drifts back to those early years of producing my first short stories, plays and essays. My first novel. What I don’t hear, I can feel when I touch the papers I wrote then, still in my file drawers, smelling musty now from age, but reassuring me that I made wise choices: to pursue writing, and eventually the teaching of writing. Looking in, anyone can see that I am blessed: these two occupations have given me a rich, full life.

Please visit my website: www.eileenobser.com and see my Book page, which gives information about Only You, my memoir, to be published in January by Oak Tree Press.

14 Responses to What’s the Sense of All This?

  1. Nice post, Eileen! When I’m reading (or writing) a novel, I want to “experience” it and I think using the five senses helps to accomplish that. There’s only one problem. Some authors do such a great job of describing the food their characters are preparing and eating that I can almost smell the aromas and taste the flavors. Since I do most of my reading at bedtime, I’m often tempted to get up for a midnight snack. 🙂

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I love to describe food, Pat, so I think you’d never want to read some of my work at night. I was a restaurant reviewer way back, and maybe that’s when started to add food to scenes in my stories and essays. I love to read about food, too. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Yes. Too many writers today fail to provide a sense of person/place/thing. Read Lyall Watson’s “Jacobson’s Organ” to see just how much we are influenced by the nature of smell, for example, in regard to just one of our varied senses.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I appreciate your comment about this, John. I’ll certainly read Lyall Watson one day soon. He’s not a writer I know, but thanks for mentioning his work.

  3. This is a really interesting post, Eileen, and something I had not consciously considered when writing. Thanks for bringing ti to our attention.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I’m glad you liked the post, Jackie. It’s so easy to write and write and leave out such important details that bring our work more alive and memorable.

  4. Eileen,
    Thanks for the reminder that we writers should make use of all five senses. Your mentioning hearing the train come in when you were young reminded me of how I loved to hear the sound of the distant train those long ago summers I spent at our country home in CT. I still love the sound of a train.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I’m glad you share my love the sound of trains, Marilyn. I’ve lived practically my whole life within distance of that sound, love to read about trains, listen to music about trains — and here I go again, with the senses! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Marja McGraw says:

    Sometimes we get so caught up in our storylines that we forget these things. Excellent post, and thank you so much for the reminder!

    • Ed Hannibal says:

      good reminder for all writers, Eileen; reminds me of “Perfume,” an outrageously fine novel spun around one man’s gifted “nose.” I can still see and smell the mounds of eviscerated heads, tails and gizzards of fish on the floor of the market into which his mother delivers him in the first chapter (talk about fragrant, humble beginnings — and openings with hooks.)

      • Eileen Obser says:

        I haven’t read “Perfume,” but it certainly seems like it’s just loaded with sensory images. You describe it so well — I’ll have to take a look. Thanks for your comment.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Your blogs are always filled with “sense”itivity, Marja, and I enjoy them for that. I’m sure your novels are, too! Thanks for writing.

  6. Smell does it for me. I went out with two guys (at different times) who wore the same scent, patchouli. When I me the second guy, I think half of the reason I went out with him is because he smelled like the first guy. Almost thirty years later, when I smell patchouli now I still think of that first boyfriend, even though I went out with the second one for longer.

    I do the same thing during editing, go back and try to make sure I’ve touched upon the senses. I write about New Orleans, and no matter where you go around here you can always smell something good cooking, so I try to incorporate that as much as I can into my writing without sounding weird (or hungry.)

    Holli Castillo

    • Eileen Obser says:

      You are very funny, Holli, and I think you should write an essay or story about the Patchouli Guys — or a song! If I lived in New Orleans, my writing would be totally immersed in food odors, sights and tastes. How can you not include that in your work? I’ll look for it when I read your books.

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